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COHA: Bringing Polycentrism To Latin America

Analysis prepared by COHA Senior Research Fellow Zlatko Kovach and Director Larry Birns

Bringing Polycentrism to Latin America

* Washington's Latin American policy: a casualty of the Iraq distraction

* The region is going through a definitive transformation, with autonomous policymaking now becoming the norm

* Bush may be known as the U.S. President that inadvertently provided the coup de grace to the remnants of the Monroe Doctrine

Polycentrism has been reborn in Latin America, and Washington would be wise to adapt to that fact. Polycentrism is a system of interpreting a country's political activity around multiple and co-equal centers of sovereignty, characterized by parity and pluralism. While the rights and responsibilities to its citizens and to the international community are immutable, sovereign equality is at the core of the region.

At the time that polycentrism first emerged as a concept in post-World War II Europe, its author, Italian Communist Party chief Palmiro Togliatti, represented it as an anti-Stalinist, but not necessarily as a pro-democratization initiative within the Soviet bloc. Translated to a Latin American context, polycentrism reflects an accelerated unraveling of the asymmetrical, post-Cold War hemispheric relationships in which U.S. influence was paramount.

Ironically, the emergence of polycentrism in Latin America marks a victory for democracy and pluralism as it affords individual states the theoretical possibility for realizing their sovereign aspirations. One could argue that it may have been tolerable for the U.S. to display its dominance in the past, when Washington's geopolitical imbalances were seen as being beyond challenge, but the Iraq War has reduced the U.S.'s regional presence, so that it can barely claim to be first among equals.

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Today, the U.S. is an Achilles, sulking in his tent, facing a band of leaderless, and mostly rebellious, Myrmidons. Since Iraq, Latin America increasingly has gone its own way, sampling the spectrum of novel experiences with previously untested partners - of which China, India, and Russia are the most prominent.

Importing the polycentrism witnessed in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s is illustrative of what the rest of the Hemisphere could soon be experiencing. It was to characterize a new geopolitical strategy, a relationship of putative equals that Eastern European communist parties achieved after de-Stalinization.

In Latin America, the system could roughly be compared to the stand taken by the former Yugoslavia under Tito at a time when the country was evolving a policy of nonalignment with both protagonists in the Cold War. For years, Yugoslavia had been one of the Soviet Union's most important allies, but as the Cold War heated up, relations began to sour.

Yugoslavia broke from Stalin's tutelage in 1948 and proceeded to pursue a foreign policy distinguished by a quest for equality in dealing with not only Moscow and Washington, but with other powers as well.

The Changing Reality of the U.S. Latin American Policy

No doubt the wayward U.S. initiatives in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East weakened Washington's acuity, but it was the U.S.' all-embracing engagement in Iraq that provided the major source of distraction which, regrettably, exerted a heavy cost on the Bush Administration's Latin American policy.

Regional clashes and seismic decisions like the now defunct FTAA master trade plan have been crowded on the back burner. Meanwhile, the inability of the U.S. to conceptualize a viable Iraq end game has, in turn, affected its ability to recalibrate its policy toward Latin America. Indeed, the rise of the "New Left" in Latin America, led by Hugo Chávez, and nursed by his oil purse, may well be seen as an indication of the extent to which U.S. political leadership in the region has weakened.

Area countries have indeed begun to develop their own unique positions on issues of overarching concern, ranging from energy, to defense policy, to poverty abatement.

Even though polycentrism in Latin America has not fully matured, area specialists would argue that the region is well on its way in that direction. In this new atmosphere, local stratagems for modernization and growth, once directed from the Treasury Department and the international lending agencies, are increasingly being transferred to regional institutions and are being made to conform to responsible local norms.

Moreover, entirely new local financial institutions like the Chávez inspired Bank of the South are also being created and they compete with the previously unchallenged international financial institutions like the IMF. The Bank of the South (now numbering eight member countries) is a good example of how an increasingly skeptical population backs this initiative for a new architecture that actually assists average borrowers in efficiently obtaining much needed credits for economic development.

Calls to stand the U.S. Monroe Doctrine on its head can now be heard throughout Latin America. One sees evidence of this in editorial page essays by Latin American policy analysts, who now reject any notion of the infallibility of U.S. leadership. Today, they deride the thesis that the U.S. (and by extension, the Organization of American States) always knows what is best for the local populations, what conditions the U.S. should place on stepping up privatization reforms, and whether a return to a mixed economy would be good for the area.

In addition, the Latin American public has matured to the point that it does not perceive the U.S. role as being inevitably constructive. In fact, nearly 80 percent of the population holds a negative view on the U.S. intervention in Iraq, which certainly does not help the White House's actual and potential efforts to win hearts and minds.

During George W. Bush's Presidency, the U.S. has used the issues of terrorism, drugs and human trafficking, and the Cold War's left over treasure chest of favored ideological targets (the Cuba embargo and various torpedoed socialist experiments elsewhere in the hemisphere) as strategic cover to serve its own narrowly perceived national interests, not necessarily Latin America's.

Authorized by congressionally mandated annual certifications of the level of each area government's cooperation with Washington in fighting drugs, terrorism, and trafficking, the State Department instituted a scorecard of sorts, to measure progress in these and other matters of concern. Only now is U.S. policy beginning to question the post-Carter era, during which "trade not aid" has been repeatedly proclaimed as a guiding principle.

The Bush Administration is now trying to reverse course and belatedly help address social ills in Latin America by turning up the volume of aid in addition to promoting trade. This nascent shift at last recognizes that poverty and the need for more equitable distribution of resources are better addressed by local initiatives rather than by merely following Washington's often fallow trade formulae.

Bush's visit to Latin America last March and the decision to give full attention to Latin American countries' concerns in addition to promoting the Administration's priorities on trade and the war on terror, was perhaps the best foray of the U.S. regional policy. Unfortunately for the U.S., this interest in a reinvigorated Latin American policy has since waned. Latin America, in essence, is still of secondary concern, further giving polycentrism ground on which to blossom.

Who "Lost" Latin America?

Paradoxically, the coming of polycentrism may prove providential for the area. Latin America is actively seeking resource-based trade pacts with China, India and Russia. The net result is that Latin Americans have started a process of "strategic soul-searching" for a new ideology - one that is antithetical toward what they perceive as U.S. short-sightedness when it comes to the environment, trade matters, and human rights standards and policies.

The negative effect of this process, one that Washington has lamented, is that Latin America is also building relations with a raft of countries that the U.S. considers to be pariahs - such as Iran, North Korea and Libya. Overall, as a result of this process, today's political class in Latin America may very well want to genuinely address the shortfalls that have resulted from the region's entrenched sins of corruption and violence, the lack of fast-paced democratic development, and the creation of viable institutions.

Despite a potential positive effect on Latin Americans, a worrisome aspect for U.S. national interests is that Washington's global competitors are now gaining a foothold in the region and may insist on using it in the upcoming struggle for resources and power. The likely emergence of a multipolar world as a result of this scratching for critically important minerals, coupled with the fact that the new competitors will want to operate in Washington's long-claimed proverbial backyard, may come to be seen as a challenge to U.S. primacy.

Moreover, it certainly may threaten what is left of a diminished State Department's capacity for a more engaged regional diplomacy, especially at a time when it must also maintain a growing vigilance in geopolitically sensitive areas like Eurasia, which by rebound, are also playing a significant role in Latin American affairs. To China and Russia, polycentrism in Latin America--especially with regard to events in Venezuela--is a welcome deflection from their own backyards.

Though outwardly commendable, Washington's catch-up effort at macro-planning may be too late. While there may be some prospect that Washington can reposition itself in the Latin American theater, this administration has run out of time.

The next administration, of course, must try to repair these frayed relationships as completely as it can. It must better compete in all aspects of its presence and especially clearly communicate better America's core views in order to capture anew Latin America's hearts, if not minds.

In short, the next administration must exhume some of the more enlightened aspects of past U.S. leadership rather than more narrowly safeguard certain interests like oil and other resources. Such a stand would permit U.S. initiatives to be targeted not only in its best interests, but for the region's common good as well.


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